[info]limyaael @ 12:55 pm: Reviews of a few of the books I finished recently

Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites

This is urban fantasy set in a future Atlanta where technology and magic come in “waves” that impact the functioning of cars, buildings, electricity, and many other aspects of daily life. Magic has been around for long enough that humans are adapting to it, as well as to the presence of other creatures like vampires—here, mindless undead beasts “piloted” by necromancers—and lycanthropes—here, victims of the Lycan-V virus and likely to become insane murderers unless they follow a very narrow code of behavior. Magic is slowly winning. The heroine is Kate Daniels, who, as per usual for this kind of book, goes into investigating the violent murder of her guardian with a host of secrets that are not fully explained, unusual combat techniques, and a dark family past.

There are several things I liked about this book. The worldbuilding is clever; it’s very different from the usual “the undead/fae are just starting to come out of hiding or are completely hidden” trope, and that alone earns it a lot of points. It’s also urban fantasy not set in New York City, another point-getter. The violence is brutal and not glossed-over, and there are plenty of different characters who compete for attention. The kickass heroine does have some limitations, and she actually has to stop and think about whether acting like a rabid lone wolf is worth the cost (that is, the consequences of people getting irritated with her). That’s an insight a lot of “normal” fantasy heroes could stand to have.

Also, this is a book that agrees with me that corpses that feed on human blood are not sexy.

I didn’t like the last quarter of the story much. Here a monologuing villain, there a randomly introduced new character that mainly seemed present to make sure the final battle wouldn’t be too tough for Our Heroes, over here the sudden eruption of the skeevy gender dynamics that I think they make you sign a charter to include in your urban fantasy…I’m not sure I’ll read more of the series. The last few pages, however, were enough to restore some of my interest.

Cindy Pon, Silver Phoenix

YA fantasy, set in an alternate world modeled on the Chinese empire. Ai Ling, who is proving impossible to betroth and also hearing people’s thoughts for some reason, is unhappy when her father leaves to go on a mission to the Palace, but is sure he will return soon. He doesn’t. She goes in search of him and runs into a half-foreign young man named Chen Yong, whose parents her father got in trouble for helping years ago. So they pursue their quest together, facing demons, people with one eye and four arms, and being lost forever in an alternate world.

I loved this. It has a setting that’s very unusual for Western fantasy and every character is of color except for the half-white Chen Yong, it makes the heroine the real center of the story and the performer of the quest instead of the young man she meets along the way (Chen Yong’s story is important, but definitely subordinate to Ai Ling’s), it has the heroine make mistakes, it keeps the romance properly subdued, and it has several passages of gorgeous description (I especially adored the dragon). The danger is properly scary. The ending threw my expectations off completely, although I suppose it’s possible to read that as sequel bait. Ai Ling is not as kickass as Kate Daniels, but she seemed much more real to me, despite living in an entirely different world.

It had flaws, of course. One of Ai Ling’s mistakes is so easily resolved that it felt a bit like a cheat; here’s the potential for a lot of conflict and soul-searching, and it goes away in a few pages. I detested the opening prologue, which shows Chen Yong being born, though mainly because I’ve read far too many fantasy prologues that center on the protagonist’s birth, apparently because authors think that the “Ooh! Babies!” impulse will attach you to someone who doesn’t have a name and hasn’t done anything yet. (This is one of the reasons I was so relieved to find out that Ai Ling and not Chen Yong was the main character). The major antagonist is introduced so late that he didn’t feel like as much of a threat to me as the characters took him as.

However, these are faults that didn’t destroy the book for me. I highly recommend it.

Caroline Stevermer, When the King Comes Home

This is a sort of alternate history; there are clear references to our own world, especially through evocations of Christianity and art, but the countries and cities that the story takes place in are imaginary. The main character is Hail Rosamer, who explains carefully in the first lines of the book that she has her name because her father was so happy to have a daughter after four sons, not because she is named after bad weather. Her family are wool merchants, but she travels to the capital city of Aravis to be apprenticed to an artist. The book is an account by Hail, when she’s much older and looking back over her life, of what happened when she became fascinated by the work of an artist named Maspero and got involved in the chaos surrounding the sudden reappearance of King Julian after two hundred years.

This book is an excellent example of how to write a first-person protagonist who comes off as something other than a smartass. Hail is not witty or charming or overwhelmed with angst. She annoys other characters considerably, constantly asks questions, gets obsessed with Maspero, stubbornly clings to her own course of action and then is sorry she did, and tends to see everything in terms of either art in general or Maspero in particular. But the flaws made her seem human to me—probably because I had no sense that the author expected me to love and adore Hail and credit her with every virtue. Not all of the other characters are equally vivid, but Good King Julian, his champion Istvan, and the various soldiers and artists who associate with Hail mostly are. Hail remains on the sidelines for most of the book, since she’s not a soldier and has no political power, but she’s involved in the events all the way from the beginning, and those events are interesting. Plus, I always enjoy a book about a protagonist who has an occupation that’s not mage, fighter, or thief.

Of course, Hail being an observer character has its own problems, in that sometimes the story feels strained as it includes her, and a few important events happen off-stage, away from her vision. The magical background, though required by the story, isn’t particularly detailed or original, which is probably also a result of Hail’s having little familiarity with it. If you don’t like Hail’s obsessions, you are going to find this book annoying as hell.

Luckily, this is one of those books that you would probably know you’d like or hate from reading the first few pages, so I recommend that you do that if you’re interested.


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